Education Opinion

From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Three Myths about Education Technology and Equity

By Justin Reich — October 30, 2017 4 min read
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Today’s post from Justin Reich and Mimi Ito is cross-posted at dmlCentral.

Three powerful myths persist in our narratives around education technology.

The first is that technology has the capacity to disrupt systems. For all the hope and hype that technologies can enable major organizational changes in educational systems through personalization, unbundling, or information access, the reality is that culture domesticates new technologies. New apps, software, and devices are put in the service of existing structures and systems, rather than rearranging them. The most widely adopted education technologies are those that add a little efficiency to existing practices in school systems.

The second myth is that free and open technologies will democratize education. One virtue of the incredibly rich data that can be collected from new digital platforms is that we can investigate more closely than ever before how learners from different life circumstances access and use new learning technologies. The research from these investigations is robust and clear: new technologies, even free ones, usually disproportionately benefit students with the financial, social, and technical capital to take advantage of new technologies. In a sense, the digital divide is more of a digital fault line, and each new innovation opens chasms of opportunity between our most and least affluent students.

The third myth is that digital divides can be closed through providing technology access. As complex and challenging as it is to create systems where every young person can use a functioning, modern computer with reliable broadband connection, these are only first steps toward digital parity. It turns out that social and cultural forms of exclusion are as powerful, and often much harder to understand and address, as challenges of technology access. Turning the incredible potential of education technology toward the benefit of the students who are furthest from opportunity will require reckoning with the social and cultural contexts in which disadvantaged students live.

The accumulated evidence that shatters these myths makes it clear that education technology will never simplistically close digital divides. No matter how many transistors we squeeze onto a millimeter, no matter how many bits are passing wirelessly over our heads, the hard parts of reducing educational inequality will remain hard.

But for all these challenges, there are education technologists who are partnering with educators, system leaders, developers, learners, and social and cultural researchers to better understand the truly difficult dimensions of the digital divide. From experiments in K-12, higher ed, informal spaces, and lifelong learning, there are a growing body of exemplary projects that are devising new theories and testing new practices for putting education technology in the service of learners furthest from opportunities. These diverse examples have two common themes. The first is that they attempt to close the social distance between the people creating new technologies and communities of learners. Technologists with a deep understanding of learners and their contexts are more likely to understand their needs and constraints. Second, projects that successfully close digital divides are sensitive to context and culture, and their solutions adapt to local conditions.

We live in the greatest time in world history to be a learner. For almost every conceivable topic, hobby, or discipline, there exists an online community of resources, teachers, and learners excited about sharing their passions and pursuits. Our challenge is to give all young people the skills, connections, and experience needed to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities that our unique era affords.

Today, we’re publishing a new report: “From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity by Design in Learning Technologies.” The report lays out in greater detail the three ed tech myths above and connects them to research findings from diverse fields and disciplines. The report then outlines a variety of examples of programs that are closing dimensions of the digital divide, and lays out a framework toward developing a set of Guiding Principles for Digital Equity, that could guide developers, philanthropists, venture capitalists, policymakers, researchers, and educators toward more effective strategies for leveraging technology in the service of equality. The report concludes with a call for efforts to consolidate all that we have learned over the last decades about education technology and equality, and to imagine from that history a new way forward.

We hope you will read the report, share it widely, and connect with us here and on Twitter with your questions, reactions, and suggestions.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.